(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)

Angel Musicians

Oil on wood, 165 x 230 cm (each panel)
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

Memling produced this three-part panel painting more than half a century after the Ghent Altar-piece of the van Eyck brothers. The central panel not reproduced here shows the figure of Christ surrounded by· singing angels. Thus, laudative music again accompanies the theme of "Majestas Domini". Formalistically, however, the artist does not follow the famous example. One explanation for this is the original purpose of the panels and their horizontally rectangular shape. They used to decorate the organ loft in the church of the Castilian city of Najera. Located relatively high, they were placed in a long, horizontal row, hence the large and bust-like appearance of the figures.

The accurate rendering of the numerous players may create the impression that the painter wanted to present an ensemble of contemporary musical instruments. In fact, however, the composition reveals an arrangement of strict symmetry, partly suggested by the hierarchical order of angels and the related symbolism of instruments, although the classification is not as clear as in the works of Giotto or Geertgen. In the central panel depicting Christ, six singing angels represent music of the highest order. On each side of Him (on the right of the first panel, and on the left of the second), in a mirror arrangement, are two wind instruments: one trumpet on each side and a zink and busine, representing the order of "trumpeting" herald angels. Moving further away from the centre, on the left we see stringed instruments: a lute, a tromba marina and a psaltery, while on the right the mellower, quieter instruments, a portative organ, a harp and a fiddle. The psaltery, for example, was used exclusively to accompany psalms and beseeching prayers.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.